Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Giveaway winner and a new Juli Zeh review

A short post to round up a couple of recent bits and pieces. First of all, congratulations to Gareth Beniston who won my Yoko Ogawa giveaway.

DecompressionSecond, there’s a new issue of Shiny New Books online, in which I have a couple of reviews. Brand new is a review of Juli Zeh’s intriguing Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen), which centres on a love triangle involving a diving instructor and his latest client, and becomes a game of control where you can’t quite be sure who to believe. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll also find an expanded version of my original blog post on All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which recently picked up three awards within the space of eight days, and with very good reason.

We Love This Book reviews: David Safier and Cristina Henríquez

Here are a couple of reviews I’ve had published recently at We Love This Book:

David Safier, Apocalypse Next Tuesday (2008)
Translated from the German by Hilary Parnfors (2014)

SafierThe end of the world may come before Marie Woodward finds true love – and it’s not that far off.

Marie is thirty-five when she pulls out of marrying Sven at the last minute, realising that she doesn’t love him enough for it to last a lifetime. So she moves back into her childhood home with nothing much to do but feel sorry for herself. At the same time, her father is busy hooking up with a mail-order bride and her sister Kata is recovering from a brain tumour – then Marie’s bedroom ceiling caves in. Enter a handsome carpenter named Joshua who Marie quickly falls for and who just happens to be Jesus come to Earth. Meanwhile, Satan (disguised as George Clooney) has an apocalypse to bring about, and is on the lookout for some horsemen…

Apocalypse Next Tuesday is good fun read – David Safier gets plenty of comic mileage from the incongruity of putting Jesus into the world of contemporary dating. Hilary Parnfors’ translation from the German is nicely breezy, and I especially liked the touch of including comic strips ‘drawn’ by Kata. But Safier’s novel also has a serious heart, as Marie has to think about what she really wants from life and what it really means to give herself to someone. In terms of the plot, perhaps the decisive movement towards the apocalypse comes a little too late to keep the novel balanced. Still, Apocalypse Next Tuesday is well worth a look if you’re in the mood for a romp.

(The original review is here. The  book is published in the UK by Hesperus Press.)

Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)

HenriquezThe Rivera family cross the border from Mexico to make a new life in the US – but it’s not quite the life they had hoped for.

Alma and Arturo Rivera make the move because their teenage daughter, Maribel, sustained brain damage in an accident; they’re hoping that the specialist education available in the US will help her. But there are many obstacles to overcome: the Riveras speak little English; their money won’t go very far; for all his willingness to work, Arturo has to take a job picking mushrooms. But they’re determined to make this work, for Maribel.

Someone else with his eye on Maribel (though for different reasons) is Mayor Toro, the son of an established neighbouring family from Panama. The main narration of the novel alternates between Mayor and Alma, with their stories echoing each other in various ways: the Riveras are viewed with suspicion, as are Mayor’s motives for spending time with Maribel. Mayor’s tribulations at school show that difficulties like the Riveras’ don’t necessarily end once you’ve become a naturalised citizen.

Peppering Cristina Henríquez’s novel are individual chapters narrated by immigrant characters from different parts of Central and South America, each with as much of a story to tell as the Riveras, though we catch only a glimpse of them. The end of the Riveras’ tale loses a little of the subtlety that’s gone before it; but the various narrators of The Book of Unknown Americans remind us how many voices there are that may go unheard.

(The original review is here. The book is published in the UK by Canongate, and in the US by Knopf.)

Two from the Friday Project: Charles Lambert and Harry Karlinsky

Charles Lambert, With A Zero at its Heart (2014)
Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters (2014)

The Friday Project is one of my favourite imprints of any mainstream publisher; their range is eclectic, and their selection of fiction always interesting. Here are my thoughts on a couple of their recent novels.

***

LambertYou can calculate the length of Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart precisely: there are 24 chapters (themed on topics like ‘Travel’, ‘Art’ and ‘Waiting’), each with ten numbered paragraphs of 120 words, plus one final paragraph as a coda. Each paragraph represents an episode from its protagonist’s life (a fictionalised version of Lambert’s own, I understand). The paragraphs in each chapter aren’t necessarily in chronological order, but there is a sense of movement: so, for example, the chapter on ‘Clothes’ begins with the protagonist as a ten-year-old with his first pair of jeans; goes on to depict him as an adult in Italy shopping for clothes with his partner (“It is hot, and so are they, and they have no idea how hot”); and ends with him buying the suit that he will wear at his father’s funeral.

There’s an interesting dissonance between the rigid structure of the book, and the very fluid nature of what’s being described; this highlights that the memories we each hold are ultimately what we make of them (which is underlined further by Lambert’s distancing third-person voice). The individual paragraphs may be affecting, but the contrasts and linkages created by their arrangement deepen the book’s power.

With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture. Like Knausgaard, though, Lambert juxtaposes the incidents of everyday life with the unchanging realities of living.

***

Karlinsky

Harry Karlinsky’s first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, was such an idiosyncratic book that it made me wonder what on Earth the author would write next. Here’s the answer: another work of fiction disguised as non-fiction, and drawing (to an extent!) on genuine historical documents. Karlinsky’s narrator is a psychiatrist preoccupied with why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize. The narrator’s researches reveal that a secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will established another contest: winners of one of the official Nobel Prizes would be invited to submit their theories explaining the mystery of Stonehenge; The Stonehenge Letters recounts the theories of several Nobel laureates, including Marie Curie and Rudyard Kipling.

Well, there wasn’t actually a Stonehenge Prize, but Karlinsky makes the thought of it very plausible. There are sly nudges that what we’re reading is a spoof: the narrator’s footnotes, which bring everything back to Freud; and some oddly random illustrations (“Figure 5. A one-legged stool”). But all the theories put forward about Stonehenge are genuine enough, even if they were advanced by different people. When Einstein is quoted as assessing Marie Curie’s theory (which we’d recognise as carbon-dating) as “decidedly theoretical”, it’s almost goading us into doubting what we think is fiction and what fact. I’m in no doubt, however, that Harry Karlinsky has written another delightful book in The Stonehenge Letters.

 

What They Don’t See: Emma Healey and Timur Vermes

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (2014)

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (2012)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2014)

Today I’m looking at two debut novels which really stand out to me for how they use first-person narration to create dramatic irony – so we know more than their narrators do, sometimes amusingly so, sometimes tragically.

ElizabethEmma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is simply one of the most haunting books I’ve read so far this year. Its protagonist, Maud Horsham, has dementia, which makes her narration a constantly renewing present. Here, for example, is Maud looking in a drawer:

…there is a packet of lamp posts, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.

The doorbell rings. I drop the pencil and bang into a bookcase in my hurry to leave the room. There are two dirty cups on a shelf. I collect them, and in the hall realize one has some tea in it. I drink it up, though it’s cold, and then put both cups on the bottom stair. (p. 217)

One moment, Maud can’t remember what a pencil is called; the next, she knows, without realising that she had ever forgotten. An action intended to jog her memory immediately becomes an empty ritual – and so on. Over the course of the book, as we get to know Maud better, these kinds of details have a powerful cumulative effect.

But Healey goes further than this: in the present, Maud searches for her friend Elizabeth; she also takes us back seventy years, to the time (which she recalls quite clearly) when her sister Sukey disappeared. In other words, the novel revolves around two mysteries, which would normally be all about making connections between details to create a bigger picture – but Maud is losing her ability to make such connections. This is what truly gives Elizabeth is Missing its power: the further along she goes, the more Maud is able to uncover – but she can’t perceive what it is that she has revealed. Only we, as readers, can.

In some ways, Elizabeth is Missing reminded me of Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, in its depiction of a narrator with a damaged psyche – and it won’t surprise me at all if Healey’s novel becomes as widely read. But Elizabeth is Missing really got under my skin, gave me that shivery feeling that comes when I realise I’m reading a book’s that’s very special. That feeling is why I read books in the first place.

***

LookTimur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back sees Adolf Hitler waking up, alive and well, in 2011. He’s not too bothered about finding out why this has happened, more saddened at the condition of the Germany he sees around him, and sets his heart on putting it right. Soon he has a platform that befits the age: mistaken for an exceptionally talented impersonator, he’s soon a YouTube sensation, and even given his own TV show.

Look Who’s Back makes much play of the incongruity of Hitler being in the present day: Vermes’ Hitler is quick on the uptake in some respects (he readily grasps the Internet and sees how useful it could have been for him in wartime), but not others (‘We’re all agreed the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says his producer; Hitler agrees, though for very different reasons). I expect I won’t have caught all the nuances of the satire that a German audience would; but still I found Look Who’s Back satisfyingly amusing.

Jamie Bulloch’s translation casts Hitler’s voice as long-winded, old-fashion, sure of itself. And it’s the certainty of that voice that helps create what, for me, is perhaps the most interesting effect in the novel. Look Who’s Back turns the insidiousness of Hitler’s rhetoric back on itself: where once he could persuade people around to his way of thinking, now Hitler is being outmanoeuvred by language – he doesn’t realise that he’s being made fun of by the media folk around him. As with Elizabeth is Missing, the very restrictions of the narrative voice give us a better vantage-point – and the view is one to savour.

***

Elizabeth is Missing will be published in the UK by Viking on 5 June. Read more reviews at: 50 a Year; Novelicious; Lily Meyer for Tottenville Review; My Good Bookshelf.

Look Who’s Back is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Read more reviews at: Workshy Fop; A Common Reader; The Friendly Shelf; Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014)

Rental HeartI have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kirsty Logan‘s debut story collection The Rental Heart, from Salt Publishing. This is a lovely set of stories, the kind of lush fantasy you can file alongside Lucy Wood and Jess Richards.

Let me also point you towards a review in the Independent by my fellow Desmond Elliott shadower Kaite Welsh; she loved the book as well.

#IFFP2014: The shadow winner

An announcement from the IFFP shadow jury…

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s not a task for the faint of heart – in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the ‘real’ panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months…

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples. A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road – with a child in tow. Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall. After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia – unfortunately, the weather wasn’t getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs. Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis…

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan. Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple – and then it was time to come home :)

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year’s cream of the crop. And the end result? This year’s winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

Sorrow AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press)

This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books. We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters – the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy – was excellently written. Well done to all involved with the book – writer, translator, publisher and everyone else :)

Some final thoughts to leave you with…

- Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.
– This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we’ve chosen a different winner to the ‘experts’.
– After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland – Til hamingju!
– There is something new about this year’s verdict – it’s the first time we’ve chosen a winner which didn’t even make the ‘real’ shortlist…

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and Tony would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months – rest assured we’re keen to do it all over again next year :)

You can read Jacqui’s guest review of The Sorrow of Angels here, and find the main index of my 2014 IFFP posts here.

Reading round-up: mid May

Time for another look at some of the books I’ve been reading recently…

Andy MillerAndy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously (2014)

With all the business of work and family, Andy Miller had read only one book for pleasure (The Da Vinci Code) in three years; then he found a second-hand copy of The Master and Margarita, and started reading:

…borne aloft on Bulgakov’s impassioned words, I felt the dizzying force of books again, lifting me off the 6.44, out of myself, away from Mrs Atrixo [a fellow-commuter of Miller’s who would manicure herself on the train] and her hands. How had I lived without this? (pp. 30-1)

Spurred on by that feeling, Miller made a list of fifty books he’d always meant to read (and that he’d told people he had read, when he hadn’t), and challenged himself to read them; The Year of Reading Dangerously is his account of that time. Some of the books he likes, some he doesn’t; but Miller is always entertaining when he writes about them, and there’s always a keen sense of how personal this reading is to him.

Reading this book reminded me of Eleanor Catton’s idea of literature as encounter, because that’s very much what Miller is describing here (indeed, he and Catton make some of the same points). This volume isn’t a list of ‘fifty books you must read’; it’s the story of one person rediscovering what he loves about books, and finding a place for them in his life. It’s an inspiring piece of work.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is published in the UK by Fourth Estate, and will be published in the US by Harper Perennial on 9 December.

Oscar Coop-Phane, Zenith Hotel (2012)
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (2014)

Now this is an example of how important social media can be for translated books and small publishers: Zenith Hotel (published by Arcadia Books) comes covered in quotes from bloggers, bookshops and other people on Twitter (it even bears the #translationthurs hashtag created by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog). And if all that praise wasn’t enough to raise a sense of expectation, there’s also the fact that Oscar Coop-Phane was only 24 when he won the French Prix de Flore for this, his first novel.

What we have in Zenith Hotel is a short (not even 100 pages) portrait of a day in the life of a prostitute named Nanou, and her clients. With great economy, Coop-Phane depicts a succession of men, each with their own individual situations and concerns; but makes clear that, when they go to their appointment at the Zenith Hotel, each man is no more (or less) significant than the rest. Tying the book together is the world-weary voice of Nanou, who refuses to tell us much about herself: the most important thing is what’s happening now, and what she needs to do to keep going. Ros Schwartz’s translation creates fine distinctions between these characters whom we glimpse briefly but clearly, underlining the subtlety of Coop-Phane’s work.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (2012)

This was a choice for my reading group, one I was looking forward to as my first experience of reading Dave Eggers. I don’t know quite what I was expecting – probably the kind borderline fabulism that (rightly or wrongly) I tend to associate with McSweeney’s – but it wasn’t what I got. A Hologram for the King is the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged consultant who has travelled to Saudi Arabia in the hope of making the business deal that will turn his work and life around – if only the King would turn up so Alan can make his presentation.

I gather that this book is written in a plainer style than is usual for Eggers (the literary equivalent of an acoustic set, perhaps); I think the sparseness does have its moments, but not as many as I’d hope for. I appreciate the parallel Eggers creates between the difficulties of Alan’s personal life and the USA’s economic situation, but… A Hologram for the King just never really came to life for me. Still, I would like to try reading Eggers again one day; hopefully this title was just a blip.

A Hologram for the King is published in the UK by Penguin.

Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)

My reading group also recently started a science fiction offshoot, for which this was the first choice. I hadn’t come across book or author previously, though it’s a YA title that I would have been roughly the right age for at the time of publication, and it’s the sort of book I would have read. I think the teenage me would have liked The Giver very much; but the adult me still enjoyed it.

Lois Lowry starts by briskly outlining some of the contours of her fictional world. This is an enclosed community where everything is highly structured, even growing up: every year, there’s a ceremony at which children are given the appurtenances of the next phase of their lives; until they reach Twelve, when age no longer matters and they begin the ‘assignment’ which will occupy them for the rest of their lives. Relations between children and adults in the same family unit may seem oddly distant, and there are clear hints that some catastrophe happened in the past; but this society appears to work well enough. Our protagonist is Jonas, who at Twelve is sent to The Giver, an old man who will pass on the community’s memories – suffice to say, there’s a reason most people don’t remember them.

I liked The Giver for its crispness of telling, and its thoughtfulness on issues of individuality and conformity. There’s also a wonderful shift of perception halfway through which I was nowhere near predicting. I think the book is let down slightly by its ending, which is a little too abrupt – not so bad in the context of the four-book series which The Giver begins, but it leaves this volume feeling unbalanced on its own terms. My teenage self would have wanted to read on.

The Giver is published in the UK by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Anna Jaquiery, The Lying-Down Room (2014)

This is the first in a new series of crime novels set in Paris, written by French-born and Australia-resident Anna Jaquiery. Commandant Serge Morel investigates the grisly murder of an elderly woman, a case which will lead him into the past of Soviet Russia – all while his father is slowly succumbing to dementia, and there’s turbulence in his personal life. Jaquiery balances the different elements of her novel well, and the historical thread adds an interesting dimension. All in all, the Morel series is off to a good start with The Lying-Down Room.

The Lying-Down Room is published in the UK by Mantle.

Sworn Virgin and Bonita Avenue

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (2007)
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (2014)

edsvIn 2001, Hana Doda flies from Albania to the US, where she has been invited to live with her cousin’s family – but her neighbouring passenger calls her ‘Mr’, and Hana is travelling as Mark Doda. Hana is a ‘sworn virgin’: a series of events in 1986, including her dying uncle’s demand that she abandon her studies in the city to marry a village boy, led her to follow an ancient custom which allowed her to live as and have the status of a man, on condition of lifelong celibacy. Now, in America, Hana has the opportunity to leave Mark Doda behind – if she can learn how.

Elvira Dones is an Albanian writer and film-maker who now lives in the US and writes in Italian; she has previously made a documentary about sworn virgins, but this novel is very much a study of Hana’s character specifically. Dones makes the complexity of Hana’s situation clear: it’s not just that Hana doesn’t want to lose her independence by marrying; it’s also that she loves her uncle deeply, and doesn’t want something to happen which would put that love at risk.

Hana’s gender identity also remains complex for her. Clarissa Botsford’s translation shifts between ‘she’ and ‘he’ at times, emphasising that Hana cannot settle into one persona. Though it seems clear enough that Hana was uneasy in the role of Mark (‘that man was only a carapace,’ p. 178), she also finds it difficult to establish a new self-identity as a woman. And she has to adjust to life in a new country: the life of her cousin’s daughter Jonida may be as remote from Hana as Hana’s life studying in the city was from her uncle’s in the village.

So, Sworn Virgin digs deeply into its protagonist’s psychology, and delineates the contours of her world in some detail. Strikingly, though, there are some key aspects of Hana’s life that we never see; for example, she kept a diary of her years living alone as Mark – but we don’t get to read any of it. Even after all that we’ve seen, the novel seems to say, the true heart of a person must remain private.

Sworn Virgin will be published by And Other Stories on 13 May.

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Peter Buwalda, Bonita Avenue (2010)
Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (2014)

pbbaFrom the outside, Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue may appear to be a fairly straightforward family saga: a great slab of a book (538 large-format pages), which begins with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And the young news photographer, Aaron Bever, is as intimidated by the celebrated mathematician, Siem Sigerius, as you might anticipate. But Aaron swiftly notices the cauliflower ears which are a mark of Sigerius’ past commitment to judo; this is the first of many details that set the book off kilter. Then this meeting becomes a memory, occasioned by the now-single Aaron seeing his ex Joni’s barely-recognisable mother on a train some years later – and that indicates something of how Bonita Avenue will be told: in a complicated knot of perspective and memory that mirrors the knots whose mathematics Sigerius studied.

So Bonita Avenue isn’t quite what it appears to be at first; which is appropriate for a novel whose characters pretty much all have their secrets. We discover, for example, that Sigerius is really Joni’s stepfather, and has a biological son who’s in prison; and that Joni and Aarojn were not quite as squeaky-clean as Sigerius liked to think. These (and more) revelations are handled very well indeed, as Buwalda piles layer upon layer of story, constantly reconfiguring what we thought we knew. Jonathan Reeder’s translation is also key to this, as it dances back and forth between past and present tense, first- and third-person narration, without missing a step.

Perspective in Buwalda’s novel is constantly being destabilised: we read from the viewpoints of Aaron, Sigerius, and Joni; but we know something about each of them that causes us – for at least part of the book – to question the truth of what we’re reading. Bonita Avenue twists and turns and shifts to the very end; it’s such an intriguing delight.

Bonita Avenue is published by Pushkin Press.

Clarke Award 2014: in review

This year, the Arthur C. Clarke Award received a record 121 submissions, which set the stage for an exciting shortlist and debate. However, my initial feeling about the actual shortlist was that it felt a bit… well, unadventurous; it wasn’t going to stretch anyone’s idea of science fiction (something which the Clarke often does, and which I value it for), didn’t seem to have benefitted from the uniquely broad view of the field that the Clarke enjoys. Of course there’s no reason in principle that a shortlist focused on core genre can’t be a good shortlist; now I’ve read the books, however, I can’t help feeling that the titles on the periphery of the shortlist should be at its centre, and the titles at the centre of the shortlist shouldn’t be there at all.

DisestablishmentI’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide which one of two shortlisted books I’d jettison first; in the end, there’s so little to choose between them that I may as well call it a tie for last place. Listing the two in alphabetical order means I start with The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann. This is the story of a scientist taking a final sojourn on the planet of Paradise as its human colony is dismantled, and uncovering the secrets of its strange ecology. Mann’s novel feels curiously old-fashioned to me, and is scuppered by its terrible treatment of gender (‘What fools we women are sometimes!’ thinks the protagonist at one point; there are many more examples). This goes right down into the heart of the text, and overshadows what interest there may be in its ecological themes.

Nexus

Also bringing up the rear of the shortlist for me is Ramez Naam‘s Nexus, named for an experimental drug which links human minds. Like Mann’s book, Nexus gives its female characters a poor deal, mostly sidelining them or otherwise using them as adjuncts to its male protagonist. The novel also has its weaknesses structurally: though there are moments when Nexus reflects on the implications of its titular drugs, these are largely drowned out by a humdrum thriller plot that doesn’t do the book’s ideas justice.

AncillaryAnn Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice – a thundering space opera with an AI-protagonist whose consciousness once spanned a gestalt of spacecraft and human auxilliaries, and is now confined to a single human body – has been a very popular book. I’ve seen effusive praise for it, and also some more lukewarm reactions; I’m in the latter camp. Leckie sets out some interesting territory to explore, such as issues of colonialism and gender (the protagonist defaults to using the pronoun ‘she’ for all characters, which gives the novel a distinctive texture); but, again, it feels to me as though the adventure plot is holding everything back.

Adjacent

Now to the second – and, to my mind, more successful – half of the shortlist. The Adjacent is pretty much a distillation of Christopher Priest’s individual creative vision, so what you think of it will largely depend on whether you like Priest’s work in general. I do, and I like The Adjacent: yes, there are issues with the book (particularly around its treatment of gender and the depiction of a British Islamic republic); but it also contains what I found to be the single most affecting sequence in the entire Clarke shortlist (at heart, The Adjacent is a love story), and its portrayal of bleeding realities is bracing stuff for the imagination. I don’t think that The Adjacent quite reaches the heights of Priest’s previous Clarke-winning The Separation, but it’s a considerable work all the same. I just think there are two other novels on the shortlist which are even more fully realised than this.

God's WarAction-adventure sf tends to be the poor relation when it comes to the Clarke, so it’s nice to find an example on the shortlist that feels as though it can hold its own. God’s War by Kameron Hurley comes tearing off the page with its protagonist, a no-nonsense female bounty-hunter, and its vividly depicted background of a centuries-long war on a planet with insectile technology. Issues of faith,  gender, and the body combine in a novel whose adventure aspects complement its ideas, giving them room to breathe and flourish.

Machine small

In some ways, James Smythe‘s The Machine is a very different book from God’s War, its almost claustrophobic calmness and intimate canvas worlds away from Hurley’s widescreen action. But I do think the two novels share an intensity of focus and a facility for dramatising their concerns. If I prefer The Machine over God’s War, it is really only because my personal taste runs more towards the quieter sort of novel than to action-adventure; I couldn’t place one novel ahead of the other in terms of how well each embodies and achieves its own project. That’s why I would be most happy to see either Smythe or Hurley take the Clarke when it is announced next Thursday.